Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
The most talented necromancer from each of the eight great houses, accompanied by their cavaliers, are summoned to Canaan House, the First House, home of the Necromancer Divine, the Emperor Undying. At Canaan House, the necromancers will compete for the honor of becoming a Lyctor (undying, all-powerful necromantic saints who are personal servants, guards and disciples to the Emperor). If any of the necromancers succeeds in becoming a Lyctor, they will see their house lifted up and restored to all attendant glory.
Harrowhawk Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of Drearbruh, is necromancer of the Ninth House. She is a bone adept, highly skilled – brilliant, even – and very cruel. The Ninth House is secretive, full of mystery, dark, dry and considered potentially dangerous. (It is also in abject decline, but that is only fully known to Nonagesimus.)
Then there is Gideon Nav, an indentured servant in the service to Harrowhawk and the Ninth House. She is an orphan of unknown origin, only a few months older than Harrowhawk; the two are the only children of the Ninth House. They have been enemies for 17 years.
A pretty good summary, eh? You think you have a handle on this novel, might have a good idea of where it might be going? You’d be wrong.
Gideon the Ninth is a book unlike any I have ever read, and Gideon Nav is a heroine, er, lead character, unlike any other. She is cocky, profane, highly skilled with a sword (no necromancy for Gideon, oh no), and trapped. Her every attempt at leaving the Ninth House has been thwarted by Nonagesimus, sometimes quite painfully, always with loathing – but that doesn’t keep her from trying. So when Harrow dangles her freedom in return for her service as House cavalier for the Emperor’s summons (as the official house cavalier died, um, unexpectedly), Gideon skeptically agrees.
What can I say about what happens in this book? I can’t, it’s just too rich, too thick, too imaginative, too dark, too awful(ly good). I personally don’t even like the idea of necromancy – it’s death magic, for crying out loud! – and this book contains nothing else, but I was enthralled. Often horrified, but enthralled.
A great deal of what allows this to happen is the wonderful writing style of Tamsyn Muir; while the subject matter is droll and dark, her writing is anything but. I found myself laughing out loud numerous times, and
the sheer sass of Gideon is irresistible. The complicated, evolving relationship between Gideon and Nonagesimus involves some of the best dueling I’ve read, certainly in modern fiction. And there’s just so much that is….unexpected yet so focused in this novel.
Jason Sheehan of NPR News said it so well when he wrote: “Gideon the Ninth is too funny to be horror, too gooey to be science fiction, has too many spaceships and autodoors to be fantasy, and has far more bloody dismemberings than your average parlor romance. It is altogether its own thing — brilliantly original, messy and weird straight through. With a snorting laugh and two middle fingers, the whole thing burns end-to-end. It is deep when you expect shallow, raucous when you expect dignity and, in the end, absolutely heartbreaking when you least expect it.”
Brilliantly original, messy and weird straight through. Yeah, that kind of hits the nail on the head. Especially the brilliant part. Read Gideon the Ninth, and prepare to be amazed.
A voracious reader who loves to share her thoughts on all things wordy, Sharon Browning has been a contributor at LitStack for eight years, including penning the weekly feature Gimbling in the Wabe from 2012 to 2017. She is happiest when sitting on her porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota with a good book in hand, a cup of coffee nearby and her golden retriever at her feet.